1. Reporting from Sarusajai
I begin with a full disclosure: as one of the lucky few who managed to grab a ticket online for the inaugural ceremony of Indian Super League (ISL) in Guwahati, my three other colleagues and I were happy to be in the stadium on October 1, 2016. Tripping along the long lines of North East United Football Club (NEUFC) supporters, we soaked in the air of excitement, as my colleague wondered about poor crowd control. Being used to the excitement of match day in England, his concerns reminded us of the causal link between the non-existence of mass transportation, expansion of the automobile industry and class character of the almost thirty-thousand people who had gathered there.
I’m getting ahead of the story. First things first: the match was fairly evenly contested, though one feels the Kerala Blasters were the better team, simply by the way they moved around the field. They cleared better; their passes found the persons that the ball was intended for and barring a few hitches (and with some luck) they would have won the game. NEUFC’s plays were exhausting to watch: lots of midfield tiki-taka and long balls that disappeared into oblivion. Veles and Katsumi were superb, as the latter scored a beautiful goal in the second half. Just like annoying fans all over the world, who think they know better than the coach, the people around us began to complain about the new goalie: “Abey, Rehenesh kot gol bey?” asked one of the punters behind me, as Subrata Pal traipsed out of his post and lost the plot quite a number of times.
2. Good times
The crowd exploded when NEUFC scored. For a good five minutes, all one heard was the inchoate roar from more than twenty-seven thousand persons. My neighbour kept shouting “Banzai”, probably hoping to connect with the Japanese forward who scored the goal. Most others, including this reporter, just screamed “Aaaaaaa” (stopped to catch our breath) “Yaaaaaa…..goaaaaaaaal”. Some danced, others just jumped for joy, strangers and friends hugged one another. It felt like we’d reached football heaven.
Earlier in the day, John Abraham came out to the field to a cheer that was only reserved for him and the team. Again, these observations come from sitting in the nose-bleed section with the cheapest tickets in the stadium. Our fellow spectators had probably parked their bikes and cars very far away and some were obviously a little tipsy. However, it seemed perfectly safe for the few women, children and older men who were seated below, as the spectators were sporting and let others enjoy the match. Assam’s Chief Minister, Sarbanada Sonowal (the MC pronounced his name correctly, Assamese style), elicited a moderate cheer from our neighbours. Sachin Tendulkar got an “Abey Sossin, ki koriso bey” (not such a laudable response in the local respect-o-metre). Tina Ambani got a weak round of applause and the two other Bollywood actors – Ranbir Kapoor and Abhishek Bachchan – got nothing at all, not even a jeer. M.S Dhoni got a cheer, partly because the MC was excited but John! Ah, the crowd went berserk.
It felt like John had been adopted by some family in Mawlai and was a character that most people from the region could recognise. Don’t we have a cousin who was mildly embarrassing in the past; someone who had wasted his father’s ill-gotten money buying bikes and scaring the neighbourhood dogs with his airgun; someone who suddenly stumbled upon a pot of sensitivity and ethics after having returned from a night in the lock up and was now being a good church/namghar/mosque going young man? We get John and I think he knows it.
So, when we had finished with the Shillong Chamber Choir’s rendition of Assam’s state song – that compelled my crusty colleague to stand – and some lively songs that were along the lines of the Superbowl performances in the US, John greeted the audience and acknowledged their passion for football. Huge cheers again, with punters going wild in the terraces. Assam’s CM could hardly keep up, though to his credit he tried to fit in his gratitude for Nita Ambani and Narendra Modi with all the good things that he was trying to do. He mentioned the CM’s Cup for the inter-tea plantation competition in Assam twice in his speeches and rounded off with a “Joi Ai Oxom, Bharat Mata ki jai”, as a section of the crowd stood behind a banner that read: “Football is in our blood”.
3. Bad times
Here lies the rub. When I was growing up, we read slogans like “AASU is in our blood”, or “KSU is in our blood” and sometimes (especially in upper Assam), “ULFA is in our blood”. With so many organisations and sentiments being suspended in our blood plasma, we could afford to add football to it as well. It is, however, a reminder of the long road that the region has had to travel in the past three decades. There is little gainsaying in acknowledging the ills of the past, as well as the excesses committed in the name of political struggles for autonomy and self-determination. However, we could actually do better and assess the kind of demands that were being made in the past and weigh them against the shallowness of their echoes today.
Writing about the colonial question in the United States, Ugandan scholar, Mahmood Mamdani drew a distinction between the colonial question and issues of social justice. He pointed out that even as the African American condition could be encapsulated in the exploitation of labour, the American Indian question was one of land. This had an effect in colonisation as well: the African Americans were mastered as individuals, while the American Indians were conquered as entire tribes; even as the African Americans made considerable progress on the issue of social justice and equal citizenship, the American Indians sought autonomy as the only way to retain some control over land. Mamdani’s description has many parallels with what has transpired in Northeast India over the last few decades. In the contest between autonomy and social justice, social movements in the region have all but petered out into demands for smart cities!
The state, at least in Assam, has been complicit in weaving this fantasy. One only has to look at the paucity of ideas and finances of all the autonomous councils to realise that the amazing, creative and democratic movements, such as the Autonomous State Demand Committee movement in Karbi Anglong and erstwhile North Cachar Hills, are a thing of the past. Instead of rainbow coalitions of indigenous peoples, one is now forced to engage with the reality of violence between groups that have long shared social and cultural ties with one another. Most political groups – regional and national – have been cynical in the manner in which they invoked territorial autonomy and issues of social justice. In doing so, they have completely forsaken those who labour.
Which is perhaps the reason why Assam’s CM is so keen to sell football in the tea plantation, when he ought to have paid heed to more than one hundred and fifty years of exploitation. There will be no autonomous councils for the Adivasi community in Assam, so they might have to make-do with a football tournament instead. Maybe they too will carry banners that claim that the struggle for fair wages and decent work can best be realised in the football field.
Cultural theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer cautioned students of social science about the dangers of mass-produced culture, where commodities are standardised, formulae repeated and people lulled into obedience. Football, in its ISL form, allows for this process to occur seamlessly. There must be a canny advertising person sitting somewhere, tapping into an inchoate babel of demands and sorting out the ones that can be domesticated, from the ones that need to be culled. Capitalism’s ability to pacify its discontents is legendary: even Bertolt Brecht said so. Hence, there was no hissing of displeasure when the big TV screens run through a soppy commercial, where civilians from all walks of began saluting soldiers in buses and at traffic stops. All the members of the armed forces were riding their Hero motorcycles and Hero, of course, was the main sponsor of the event. The advertising person was only cashing in on the current war hysteria, and completely uninterested in the five decades of militarisation of the region.
4. You know I’ve had my share
I kept wondering if the ISL match would have been possible in Guwahati even a decade ago. Would people have braved humid weather, dust, long lines and trudged to a stadium completely disconnected from the heart of the city? Would they have been as enthusiastic about the easy manner in which regional politics merged with national markets? Actually, I’m stretching the truth a bit. My colleagues and I skipped out of the stadium happy that we had won on the strength of a solitary goal, scored by a Japanese player and supported by a host of players of different nationalities.
Once we reached outside, the dust, traffic, crowds, chaos and look of bewilderment on the faces of many of the people streaming out of the stadium, brought me back to reality. It seemed like waking up with a bad hangover after a night of wanton revelry, where the first thought that comes to one’s mind is: “I should have been wiser”. As we wait excitedly for the other matches to unfold, I hope we can reflect on the weight of our past before celebrating our uncertain future. Maybe John and his football team are doing a decent job on the pitch, but there is this whole other world of contentious issues that we need to deal with: impoverishment of our farmers, unrest among our indigenous communities, pilfering of public wealth, growing inequalities in society and the steady alienation of local youth from means of production. Sure, a game of football is a good distraction (especially if our team wins), but we still have to wake up in the morning to old problems that refuse to go away.